How to sleep better
Not only have you dialed in your nutrition, but your training is also on point; awesome!
It’s safe to say you’re on the road to making gains, shredding a shed load of fat or whatever else your goal may be then, right?
Whilst it’s true that solid nutrition and training are HUGE pieces of the puzzle that is reaching your dream body and maximising your health, they don’t paint the whole picture
And if you really want to maximize your progress, you need to delve deeper into other aspects of your lifestyle.
The recipe for Maximal progress
Simply put, your training primes your body to grow and then during the recovery period, your body adapts to the training and you make gains.
So you can think of the recipe for maximal progress as:
- A training programme that creates the correct stimulus for the gains you want to make
- Nutrition geared towards your goal
- Sufficient recovery time to allow your body to adapt. This encompasses both psychological and physiological rest
All these ‘ingredients’ need to be combined in the right dosages to maximize your progress and if you neglect any one of them, your progress will be sub par at best.
Unfortunately, like a poor chef might skimp on a particularly expensive ingredient and pay the price with the taste of their dish, many gym goers fail to pay enough attention to their recovery time and pay the price with their gains.
Sleep, in particular, is what often takes a back seat with our busy modern lifestyles.
Whether this is because of piles of work to get through, an epic Netflix marathon or too many nights out, the result is the same; hampered gains.
It has also been shown that fewer hours in the sack leads to less fat loss and greater losses of fat free body mass (eg: muscle) when dieting (1).
So in short, getting a good night in the sack is damn important if you don’t want to miss out on potential gains and slow your progress
And below I delve into some of the most important steps to take if you want to get a good dose of shut eye.
They can be split into two broad categories: sleeping environment and pre sleep behaviours.
1. Sleeping Environment
You can think of the ideal sleeping environment as cave-like:
- and comfortable (ok, I don’t know how comfortable a cave would be. But you get the point)
The following pieces of kit may help you achieve this cave-like environment so might be worth investing in if you live in a noisy area, have lots of light filtering into your room or have a really bright alarm clock etc:
- An eye mask, light-blocking blinds, earplugs, a fan, a white noise machine/app
Whilst comfort will obviously come down to your personal preferences, investing in a comfy mattress/pillows, regularly washing your bed sheets and making sure you feel safe and secure in your room are important things to consider. There’s not a great deal more to add on the sleeping environment front.
But we can go a little deeper with pre-sleep behaviours.
2. Pre sleep behaviours
Like the simple way to think of your sleep environment as being cave-like, when it comes to your pre-sleep behaviours think nutrition, light and schedule.
The obvious factor to consider is caffeine.
Now, I’m not going to tell you to go cold turkey on your caffeine intake as I’m just as much of a coffee lover as the next person. In fact, whilst I write this I’m sat here sipping on a mug of Ethiopia’s finest.
Moderate caffeine consumption is also absolutely fine for those of us who can handle it well too.
Because caffeine takes a long time to get out of our systems, it’s best to avoid any caffeine intake from the mid-afternoon onwards/6-7 hours pre bed though, as it could still impact your sleep a number of hours before you hit the hay.
It’s also important to realise if and when you’re using caffeine to mask crappy sleep. Sure, there are times when we all need coffee to pick us up during a period of heavy work or whatever else
But if this becomes the norm, then you should consider taking steps to taper back your caffeine intake and address your poor sleep before it catches up on you.
With that said, the European Food Safety Authority state that 400 mg of caffeine per day doesn’t pose safety concerns for healthy, non-pregnant adults (2). So it makes sense to limit your daily intake to around 400 mg.
That’s equivalent to roughly 3-4 instant coffees or 3-4 shots of expresso from most chain cafes. Keep in mind that most small coffees from chain cafes have 2 shots and there are many other foods and beverages containing caffeine like protein bars, diet coke and dark chocolate.
Another much loved substance that also needs to be considered when it comes to sleep is alcohol.
First off, if you’ve any interest in maximizing health, performance or body composition, it should come as no surprise that alcohol shouldn’t make up a large part of your daily nutrition.
A little won’t hurt provided it fits your daily Calorie requirements though, and I won’t pretend as though I don’t enjoy the odd pint or night out with friends.
As often is the case, moderation is key. UK guidelines suggest 3-4 units as a sensible daily limit for males and 2-3 units for females (3). To help you visualize these numbers, a pint of 4% beer is around 2.5 units and a 40% shot is roughly 1 unit.
Bar the obvious issues that a heavy session of drinking can have on your head the next morning, when consumed close to bed time, even moderate drinking can disrupt sleeping patterns and leave you feeling groggier the next day as a result.
For these reasons, it’s best to limit alcohol in the evenings.
Does that mean you should never have a glass of wine with your dinner
Or a casual pint whilst watching the football on a Friday night?
Nope. If you want to dial in your sleep or you consistently wake up feeling unrefreshed, it should be the exception rather than the rule though.
From a nutritional standpoint, managing caffeine and alcohol intake stands head and shoulders above any other intervention given you’re already consuming a solid, nutrient dense diet and don’t have deficiencies in nutrients such as magnesium or some of the B vitamins (4)
And whilst some people will swear by X diet, food or supplement, there isn’t a great deal of evidence for much outside of a bog standard healthy diet.
Boring, I know.
This means that playing around with meal timings, macros and things like herbal teas will ultimately come down to a game of trial and error to find what works for you.
There are some other big players outside of nutrition when it comes to pre-sleep behaviours though.
"Like the simple way to think of your sleep environment as being cave-like, when it comes to your pre-sleep behaviours think nutrition, light and schedule".
Light and Schedule
Light exposure is high up on the list and plays such an important role that apple updated their iPhone software to include a setting specifically geared towards this. More on this in a second.
Simply put, many of our bodily functions follow 24 hour patterns know as circadian rhythms
Which, if disrupted or irregular can leave you feeling below par.
Ever wondered why you get jetlag after you travel across the globe?
Or your toilet patterns are like clockwork?
Well, now you know: circadian rhythms.
There are a number of things that anchor these 24 hour rhythms, with light being one of the primary factors. In other words, light tells your body when it’s day time and different physiological functions follow patterns based on this.
This makes a lot of sense seeing as for the vast majority of the time our species has existed, we’ve got up at sunrise and hit the hay soon after sundown.
Only recently have we been able to cheat this system with the use of artificial light and dramatically change the time we’re exposed to light by watching game of thrones, playing fifa or trolling friends on facebook late at night.
Specifically, it is the blue light waves that make our bodies believe it’s day time
And standard lightbulbs and electronic devices such as tvs, phones and laptops give of plenty of blue light.
What apple have done is create an iPhone setting that allows you to filter this blue light out of the screen at certain times of the day. The laptop/computer app f.lux also allows you to do this, meaning that your evening facebook trolling won’t impact your sleep as greatly.
So if you HAVE to use your phone or laptop an hour or two before going to sleep, I highly recommend using these apps.
In an ideal world though, your pre bed schedule should involve minimising light exposure from all electronic devices close to bed
And to help set and maintain the ideal sleep/wake rhythm you should also shoot for the following:
- Minimise light exposure at least 1-2 hours prior to bed time. Yes, that means your Netflix series will have to wait. Don’t worry though, it will still be there in the morning or whenever else you find yourself with a bit of free time
- Get outside and expose yourself to the light when you get up in the morning
- Stick to a regular sleep/wake schedule, going to bed and waking up at the same time throughout the week
- Aim for at least 7-8 hours of sleep. That will mean getting into bed no later than around 11pm for most people
Scheduling in a 30-60 minute wind down period before going to bed where you do relaxing and non-productive activities like meditation, having a bath and/or stretching is also key for those of us who find it hard to switch off from the goings on of day to day life.
As is jotting down the next day’s tasks in a diary. Personally I find this an invaluable sleeping aid as it allows me to forget about whatever needs doing, safe in the knowledge that I can pick it back up the next day without forgetting.
To round things off, crappy sleep sucks, not just because it will leave you feeling like an extra from Shaun of the Dead like the next day, but it may also get in the way of your performance in the gym, fat loss and gains.
Granted, there are times when there’s no getting round a period of substandard sleep, but by digesting the above and putting some of the strategies into place, you’ll be able to start getting your sleep and recovery back on point.
So to recap the main points:
- Make it cave-like. That is: quiet, cool, dark and comfortable
- Don’t skimp on comfort. You spend 1/3 of your life asleep, so invest in things that will optimise your coziness.
Pre sleep behaviours
- Think nutrition, light and schedule.
- Nutrition – minimise caffeine and alcohol close to bed time and play around with meal timing, macros and other strategies to see what works well for you.
- Light – get outside in the morning to expose yourself to sunlight and minimise light exposure 1-2 hours pre bed.
- Schedule - Stick to a regular sleeping pattern and schedule in relaxing pre bed activities like meditation or stretching.
These are some of the strategies I’ve personally used myself and with clients to great success.
So if you’re keen to build muscle or get a six pack by nailing not only your training and nutrition but your recovery too, fire an email over to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Nedeltcheva, A. V., Kilkus, J. M., Imperial, J., Schoeller, D. A., & Penev, P. D. (2010). Insufficient sleep undermines dietary efforts to reduce adiposity.Annals of internal medicine, 153(7), 435-441
- Panel, E. N. (2015). Scientific Opinion on the safety of caffeine. EFSA Journal, 13(5), 4102-4120
- Foster, R. K., & Marriott, H. E. (2006). Alcohol consumption in the new millennium–weighing up the risks and benefits for our health. Nutrition Bulletin, 31(4), 286-331
- Peuhkuri, K., Sihvola, N., & Korpela, R. (2012). Diet promotes sleep duration and quality. Nutrition research, 32(5), 309-319
- Simpson, N. S., Gibbs, E. L., & Matheson, G. O. (2016). Optimizing sleep to maximize performance: implications and recommendations for elite athletes.Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports